The Princess Syndrome

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I had a lot of trouble writing yesterday’s post about wedding dresses. I was trying to figure out a feminist stance on the subject and after thinking about it, I realized that I’m ambivalent about the whole princess syndrome. The same part of me that feels uncomfortable about beauty contests has trouble advising women how to be princesses on their wedding day. But if you carry that misgiving to its extreme, then you have to ask the question, Why should women ever make the effort to be pretty?

At first I may seem like a typical Second Wave feminist who eschews anything that smacks of making a woman an “object,” sexual or otherwise. But I don’t think that making yourself look pretty is the same as transforming yourself into a sex object. Men can have lustful thoughts about women wearing abayas, for heaven’s sake. All it takes is being a woman for some men to see you as a sex object.

The real question is: why do women try to make themselves look attractive? Is it just to do what the term implies: to attract men? Or is there another reason? I read recently that women worry as much about what other women think of them as they do about what men think. That could partly be because we’re trying to assess our chances of getting the man. But even when we don’t particularly want a man’s attention, we will still make the effort to be as pretty as we can be.

And nowhere is this most evident than on the day we get married. It is expected of a bride that she will go all out to be beautiful on her wedding day. Everything must be perfect, even down to her underwear. She is transformed from Cinderella into the most beautiful woman at the ball, with her handsome prince by her side. This is also why women love makeover shows: they want to believe that it is possible for any woman to be turned into a princess.

Anne Hathaway
Anne Hathaway

I’m convinced that one reason Anne Hathaway has the reputation for beauty that she has is because she has a regal bearing. Especially in her evening gowns, she looks like a princess. (Could that be why she was picked for “The Princess Diaries”?) She even has a little of the Cinderella to her: she’s not classically pretty, but she looks gorgeous when she’s all fixed up. She gives the average woman hope.

Women also love to see pictures of female celebrities on the red carpet. They want to imagine themselves looking the same way, even if there’s no chance in hell that they will ever get to wear gowns like those women wear. Or is there? Isn’t there a widespread belief that there will be at least one time in her life that she will look like a princess, on her wedding day? Why else put so much effort into making herself look like one?

Is there anything wrong with this? Why shouldn’t a woman want to shine on her wedding day? Or any day for that matter? Does wanting that make you less of a feminist? Obviously some feminists think so, or at least struggle with that question. But I think there’s something else at work when a woman does all the womanly things to make herself look attractive. It has to do with a woman’s sense of identity. Wanting to be  attractive is part of being female; it is probably hard-wired into us because of biology.

Feminists would do well to adopt the Army slogan, “Be all you can be.” That means not just being able to be an engineer or scientist, if that’s what you want. It also means being able to look the way we want to look. If it suits you to be  a tomboy, then be a tomboy. If your look is more androgynous or even masculine, then go with that. But if you’re feminine in your looks and mannerisms, what’s wrong with wanting to make the most of that aspect of your being? I think we all look better if we work with what we have and not try to make ourselves be something we’re not. But it also means having the right to make ourselves into princesses, for at least one day in our lives.

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Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

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